Anxiety, stress, sleeping problems, burnout, inability to stop ‘doomscrolling’ on Twitter. These are some of the mental health problems that journalists have been experiencing during the pandemic, unable to take a break from the grim news cycle and isolated in their homes while working remotely.
Tom Hourigan, a senior journalist for the BBC, was no exception. Even before the pandemic, he was living with health anxiety, which means he fixates on health scares and his mind will not rest until a true diagnosis is given.
When the pandemic hit, he truly felt the strain. He also realised that, although the journalism community is a supportive one, it lacks a safe space to talk about mental health.
This inspired him to support his peers during the pandemic through Newsbreak, a website that encourages journalists to open up about their experiences during the pandemic.
In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, Hourigan revealed how he is trying to improve the conversation around mental health within the media organisations. And as remote working seems to be here to stay, these discussions are more important now than ever.
"What we don’t want is a situation where people feel cut off or isolated at home," he says, adding that the team spirit in the newsroom provides a sense of community and support which is crucial to the wellbeing of all employees.
Managers need better resources
On Newsbreak, some journalists have shared their experiences of asking their bosses for help but the management was not well-equipped to deal with their struggles.
"The response has typically been to give them a leaflet with some sort of phone number or website and the buck has been passed. But the help and intervention need to happen at an earlier stage."
Support must be made accessible
Hourigan said that whilst there are many amazing mental health charities out there, we need to improve the first line of support offered in the newsroom.
There’s no one better than journalists to understand what other journalists are going through.Tom Hourigan
"We shouldn’t really be forcing journalists to have to seek outside help in the first instance. Let’s see what we can do within the journalism community first because there’s no one better than journalists to understand what other journalists are going through.”
He also described how journalists often feel they have to justify themselves when they are feeling stressed or anxious, as if mental wellbeing was less important than physical health. The reluctance to give staff time off to deal with their mental health is also caused by the fact that it is not a visible problem.
"Some people still feel as though they cannot talk about [their mental health], and [the situation] will only improve if newsrooms start to make these conversations more visible, to make the support more visible and to make it a more acceptable issue."
One journalist shared an experience of telling their boss they were suffering from anxiety and needed a couple of days off to deal with it, but they were refused due to a rota issue.
"If that had been a physical problem, a solution would have been found, but because it was a mental problem it was seen as too inconvenient. We still have this great double standard between how mental health and physical health are treated. That is an attitude which needs to change right from the top."
Since Newsbreak launched, journalists have benefited from sharing their stories with the like-minded and receptive community and fight the stigma associated with mental health.
One wrote: "These experiences have exactly mirrored mine and I thought I was the only one, and it’s so refreshing to see this and to know that I haven’t been on my own."
Hourigan wants management teams to hear the stories that journalists have shared, as this is a topic that can be hard to open up about. And to make a meaningful change, we need to work together to improve mental health support in our newsrooms.